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NZ's alcohol problem isn't as simple as the alarmists claim

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The sale of liquor has been a moral and political battleground in New Zealand for more than a century. The guns may fall silent for a time, but eventually the war resumes.

Hostilities broke out again this month with a two-pronged offensive from the advocates of tighter controls on alcohol. First, the New Zealand Medical Association called for a ban on the sale of cheap alcohol in supermarkets as a first step towards the association’s ultimate goal of abolishing supermarket liquor sales altogether. That was followed by a conference in Wellington where speakers presented an alarming picture of the social and economic costs of New Zealanders’ drinking habits.

Among their claims: alcohol harm costs $1635 a year for every New Zealander (Wellington economist Ganesh Nana); 20% of drinkers account for 75% of alcohol sales but don’t bear the cost of their excessive consumption (Melbourne economist John Marsden); alcohol is implicated in New Zealand’s high suicide rate (suicide researcher Annette Beautrais); and police spend too much time standing outside bars stopping drunks from fighting (police alcohol harm prevention co-ordinator Graham Shields).

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In the same week, a Radio New Zealand programme focused attention on the frightening consequences of fetal alcohol syndrome and made a compelling case for explicit warnings against drinking during pregnancy to be made mandatory on alcohol labels.

These are legitimate concerns. Campaigners for stricter liquor laws have been accused of citing statistics selectively and using flawed methodologies (economist Eric Crampton, for example, has vigorously challenged Nana’s figures on the costs of alcohol abuse), but there’s no denying that a minority of New Zealand drinkers cause themselves and others immense harm. The question is what, if anything, should be done about it.

The country’s doctors want wine and beer removed from supermarket shelves because it supposedly “normalises” alcohol consumption. Perhaps they haven’t noticed that drinking in moderation, as a means of relaxing, socialising and celebrating, has been considered normal in Western societies for centuries. In New Zealand, as in many other countries, consumers appreciate the convenience of combining wine and beer purchases with their grocery shopping. They have been doing it for nearly 30 years and are unlikely to react well if any government tried to take that right away from them.

Other anti-liquor activists want a higher excise tax and minimum alcohol prices to counter the availability of cheap alcohol. But these measures would penalise responsible, moderate drinkers – whom Marsden admits make up the overwhelming majority of liquor consumers – along with those who can’t or won’t control their intake.

In a democracy, the presumed benefits of a crackdown aimed at abusers must always be weighed against the effects on the majority who cause no problem. And even if alcohol was made more expensive or harder to obtain, there’s no evidence that hard-core, recidivist binge drinkers – the type who rack up repeated drink-drive convictions – would change their habits. The experience with tobacco suggests that the people who most need to give up the product are those who are least able or willing to do so.

But there is another issue here. The anti-liquor lobbyists seem determined not to acknowledge alcohol’s social and economic benefits, which are not easily quantified, or the many ways in which New Zealanders have matured in their drinking habits. They don’t tell us, for example, that per capita alcohol consumption has fallen markedly since the late 1980s – a decline that coincided with the liberalisation of our previously infantilising liquor laws.

They rail about the dangers of binge drinking but overlook the fact that binge drinking was infinitely worse when, in a misguided attempt to control men’s alcohol intake, it was institutionalised and officially sanctioned in the form of the “six o’clock swill”. They don’t acknowledge that per capita consumption in New Zealand is moderate by Western standards – lower, for example, than the average in Britain and continental Europe. And they don’t mention that some previous attempts to reduce the harm caused by alcohol – such as the 2014 reduction in drink-driving limits – have clearly failed.

What’s needed is a balanced debate that takes into account the social and economic benefits of alcohol. Perhaps if the activists weren’t so relentlessly alarmist in their assessment of its role in our culture, people might take more notice of them.

This editorial was first published in the September 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.